His father founded America’s first wine club in a strip mall pharmacy. This is how he’s carrying on his legacy as a true equal-opportunity taster.
BY LESLIE PARISEAU
On a Tuesday afternoon, Paul Kalemkiarian, the president of the Wine of the Month Club, is in his tasting room in Monrovia, California, getting ready for his usual slew of appointments. “I haven’t missed a Tuesday in 30 years,” he says, standing beneath a photo of Pope Francis, inscribed to him and his wife, Sandra. Once a week, beginning at 9:30 a.m., Kalemkiarian tastes through 60 to 75 wines in two shifts, before lunch and after.
The Wine of the Month Club lays claim to being America’s original wine club, and Kalemkiarian chooses every single wine that goes into every single shipment. He will taste literally everything that comes his way, “flavored prosecco to high-end Napa,” he says. For better or worse, he may have the most educated palate in America.
Kalemkiarian’s tasting room, which sits behind a retail store and warehouse, resembles a doctor’s office without the examination table. The countertops are covered in dozens of opened wine bottles—mostly stuff that’s been sent to him, unsolicited. He slides a bottle toward me. The label is a mosaic illustration with a little cartoon man on it. It’s emblazoned Stefon. “Try that,” he says.
Named after Bill Hader’s flamboyant sketch character, it’s an $18 Beaujolais licensed by Lot18 to bear Saturday Night Live’s branding. It is objectively not good. When my face screws up at what tastes like cardboard slathered with grape jelly, he confirms: “It’s awful.” But Kalemkiarian is an equal-opportunity taster and prides himself on the democratic approach; even when he’s certain a wine will be bad, he takes tasting seriously, if only to identify flaws with precision. He dumps my glass, and a tall, well-dressed man walks in bearing a roller bag full of what turns out to be excellent Bordeaux.
These tastings date back to the 1970s when his father, an Armenian pharmacist whose family fled to Egypt during the genocide, unwittingly built the foundations for what would become a ubiquitous subscription model. After completing a masters degree at USC, Paul Kalemkiarian Sr. opened a small chain of pharmacies around Southern California called Prescription Shop. During his final acquisition, he set out to buy a competitor’s drugstore in Palos Verdes’ Malaga Cove Plaza, and ended up owning and operating the attached liquor store. By the early 1970s, he transformed Palos Verdes Wines and Spirits into one of the Los Angeles area’s best fine wine shops.
At the time, modern California wine culture was beginning to percolate, but vintners didn’t yet have the infrastructure to distribute their wares, let alone ship them. Now-iconic winemakers like Dave Stare from Dry Creek Vineyards and Jim Barrett from Chateau Montelena would drive a route from Napa to L.A., stopping at a handful of stores along the way, including The Duke of Bourbon, Wally’s in Beverly Hills and Palos Verdes Wines and Spirits. Back then, Kalemkiarian Sr.’s store stocked grand cru Chablis and chenin blanc from the Loire alongside early releases from Fetzer and Mondavi. A look into his monthly newsletter archives dating back to March 1972 reveals his knack for methodical classification and congenial enthusiasm; recipes and holiday greetings were often tucked into each missive, like an old friend sending an annual family update. It turns out the things that made him a good pharmacist also made him a good wine merchant.
Each month Kalemkiarian Sr. would pick the wines he liked most, and display them on a table for ease of selection. He began to invite other pharmacists, doctors and regular customers to tastings, always held on Tuesdays, so they might contribute to the wine-of-the-month picks. Then a teenager working in his father’s stores, Kalemkiarian Jr. was in charge of brown-bagging the wines for blind tastings. On the day he got his license, he delivered 15 orders to monthly subscribers.
In 1988, after working in software for several years, Kalemkiarian Jr. bought the rights to the club (which had spun off from the store after his father began advertising memberships on the fair circuit) from his father. Today, the original “classic series” club—two handpicked bottles for $24.96 plus shipping—still exists, but he’s added clubs focused on pinot noir, Bordeaux and rosé, all chosen from his Tuesday tastings. All day, he presides over an Excel sheet, assigning each wine a number from one to three. “One means no way I can touch it. Two means I can use it and maybe make a deal on it. Three, is if the price is better, it might taste better,” he pauses, “But it’s only happened once.” It’s the same scale his dad used.
Near the end of the day Kalemkiarian welcomes two women who tag-team their tasting, reciting frontline prices and peering over Kalemkiarian’s shoulder as he types into this Excel file. “Oh, that one got a three!” one of them says. “You’re not supposed to know what that means,” says Kalemkiarian. “Tell me what the deal needs to be,” she says, eager for the sale.
Before they pack up, Kalemkiarian tells a story about a drive his father took up the coast in the ’70s. He stopped by a small vineyard to talk to a guy named Bob Trinchero. “Bob said, ‘It sounds like you know what you’re talking about. I want you to taste something,’’’ he recalls. “He brought out a glass filled with pink wine.”
Kalemkiarian Sr. took Trinchero’s innovation seriously, featuring Sutter Home’s Oeil de Perdrix (aka white zinfandel) in 1975. The present incarnation of Sutter Home would never make the club’s cut, but if a bottle happened to show up at Kalemkiarian’s door, he would most definitely taste it.